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Stories, Soccer, and My 1970s childhood

The women’s soccer World Cup and Elisabeth Elliot’s death on Monday.

Two things that don’t really seem to go together.  Except if you’re a child of the ‘70s like I am.  More particularly, if you’re a girl child of the ‘70s.  And even more so, a girl child with serious evangelical roots.  Thinking about Elisabeth Elliot and watching women playing soccer on television this week made me think back to my upbringing, paradoxes and all.

Looking back, the ‘70s were such an odd time to grow up.  Fabulous in some very real ways, too.  Maybe contradictory is a better word.

At school, for example, music class was a hearty helping from the catalogues of Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary plus the soundtrack from “Free to Be You and Me” and all its “radical” glory of men who cried, women who hated housework, and parents who were “people.”  The songs celebrated boys who had dolls, and girls who didn’t need to be trapped in the stultifying constructions of “Girl-land.” We had an “open” classroom and experimental pedagogy. And when Title IX opened up sports more fully to women, it was soccer that was open to both genders. Though I was the only girl in my 6th grade class to go out for the team, I still remember feeling equal to any boy on the team (and truth be told, I was probably more competitive, more driven than almost any of them).

At church, too, there seemed to be a fair amount of experimentation—by which I mean worship seemed to be open to include puppet shows and the singing of Cat Stevens’ songs (well, at least “Morning Has Broken”) and maybe the risky inclusion of something that was Catholic.

And yet, for all that, I did not know a single person who believed in the ordination of women.  And certainly, I knew no women who were ministers.  That was for people who were either very liberal theologically or who had a very low view of the Scripture (and probably both).

What I did have were the many women missionaries who were friends with my family.  And Elisabeth Elliot and Corrie Ten Boom.

It’s surprising to me now how young I was when I was first exposed to their stories: I remember seeing both Through Gates of Splendor and The Hiding Place in about 1975 when I was in the 2nd grade.  I read the books multiple times—and even owned the comic books.[1]720091

Missionary martyrdom and the Holocaust are a little intense for elementary school—and yet, these stories of faith shaped me profoundly.  Here were women—and women who were single or widowed—who were brave and strong and uncompromising.  And in college, every young Christian woman I knew read Elliot’s Passion and Purity and made it the center of our discussion of sexual ethics and behavior.  Whatever one thinks of Elliot’s conclusions today, the book opened up the topic to evangelical women in ways that hadn’t been done before.

All of this is more complicated now, of course.  Missionary stories thankfully don’t come in comic books any more.  Still, we often feel embarrassed about the enthusiasms of our youth. We want to think of ourselves as more sophisticated, our thinking more nuanced. And hopefully that’s true.

But I think it would be more gracious to our past selves to acknowledge–and not simply critique or deny–how the testimony of these (like all of us) admittedly imperfect saints shaped us for good. To affirm that God can use every story, even of those with whom we may come to have theological disagreements. And that these stories—and these people—are complicated themselves, but equally, deeply loved of God.

I didn’t know any women ministers growing up. But as a young woman reading Elisabeth Elliot and hearing her speak, I witnessed a woman who was, in the best sense of the word, fierce: smart, fully authorized to speak, confident of her call, and unapologetic about her love for God. That’s no small thing.  I came to different conclusions than she did about women’s role in the church, but I remain grateful for her life, her witness, and her role in encouraging a life lived wholeheartedly and sacrificially in service to God and neighbor.


[1] Side note: and yes, there were comic books for these and a number of other Christian best-sellers and biographies. Archie and the gang were also reinterpreted into a Christian context. As Christian culture projects, they deserve a blog all of their own.  But here’s a little overview, if you’re interested or mortified or just want to have a blast from the past.Spire_comics_ad

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this generous and charitable post. The Elliot book that captured my imagination was The Savage My Kinsman. I pored over that book, and the photos compelled me. I remember all those comics and was somehow spared the lure of them, maybe because of the subtle cultural effects of my dad’s deep and positive Calvinism, or maybe because we didn’t really live within the Evangelical world, but there was also something vaguely competitive about them.

    • ptnitter says:

      I relate Daniel. I remember the book you mention too. The pictures were extremely compelling. And no comic books for me either, probably for the same reason you didn’t have them.

  • /svm says:

    Seems women could be missionaries without upsetting the power balance of men back in the homeland?

  • ptnitter says:

    I really enjoyed this piece, Jennifer.

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